“A Buddhist Phenomenology of Suffering”
Department of Philosophy
My professional research is focused, in general, on assessing and composing phenomenological accounts of religious practices and experiences. As a methodology, phenomenology offers an especially productive approach to the examination of religious phenomena because it begins by bracketing questions about what is “behind” a religious experience (e.g., supernatural forces? pathological delusions?) and, instead, simply offers detailed descriptions of the phenomenon itself. Giving priority to what appears, phenomenology sets aside what is not directly given in the experience. While my past work has centered on Western religious doctrines and practices, this study plan would allow me to expand the scope of my research to include an Eastern religion, Buddhism.
Buddhist accounts of human suffering are especially amenable to phenomenological treatment because they often employ a strictly empirical and experiential approach. In particular, vipassanā (or “insight meditation”) is a Buddhist practice whose aim is to systematically describe and reorient the human experience of suffering through a phenomenologically intense examination of the contents of one’s own consciousness. I’ve structured my proposed study plan as an engagement with a range of primary and secondary texts on vipassanā with the intention of assembling a philosophically sophisticated account of how the practice understands and treats the root causes of human suffering. I hope to undertake this research during the Fall 2009 semester.
B. Topics and Questions
Several key topics and questions are crucial to the completion of this project:
1. Buddhist Accounts of Suffering
It will be essential to clarify, from the start, the nature of human suffering (dukkha) according to Buddhism. The Buddha’s own teachings on this subject, as preserved in the Pali canon (especially in the Sutta Pitaka), are of particular importance in this regard. What is the scope of human suffering? What are its root causes? What kinds of suffering can be treated and what kinds must simply be borne? What role does the mind play in creating and/or treating suffering?
Vipassanā is an ancient meditative practice taught by the Buddha that is designed to give the practitioner direct insight into the nature of the suffering that shapes (and often cripples) our experience of the world. By cultivating an intense awareness of both the body and the operations of the mind, vipassanā aims to clarify precisely what aspects of life do and do not fall within the scope of our control. What is the nature of this intense awareness? How is it cultivated? What phenomenological descriptions can be given of it? And, especially, how does it re-orient our experience of human suffering?
Buddhism, particularly as taught and practiced by the Buddha himself, resonates with the phenomenological imperative to examine directly and in detail the content of human experience as it is experienced. To what extent is the Buddha’s own approach genuinely phenomenological? In what ways does it diverge from the contemporary Western practice of phenomenology as a philosophical methodology? Why does the Buddha ascribe to the practice of phenomenology itself a kind of curative power? In other words, what is potentially curative about the direct examination of one’s own consciousness?
C. Weekly Plan
The following research plan is organized in such a way as to: (1) place emphasis on a number of key primary texts, (2) supplement this emphasis with secondary works that elaborate vipassanā as a practice, and (3) supplement both of the above with texts that explicitly address the connection between Buddhism and Western approaches to phenomenology.
Reading: Bhikku Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses
Justification: Bodhi’s anthology is easily the best available collection of discourses from the Pali canon attributed to the Buddha himself. At nearly 500pp., it is both broad and deep. The anthology will provide a firm foundation in the relevant primary sources.
Reading: Bhikku Nanamoli, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha
Justification: This translation of The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha rounds out the primary sources used in this study. These discourses (1500pp.) constitute the core of the oldest materials available that are attributed to the Buddha. As related to vipassanā and the nature of human suffering, it covers matters both practical and theoretical.
Reading: Larry Rosenberg, Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation
Justification: Rosenberg’s book presents a detailed, practical introduction to vipassanā as a meditative practice. It addresses the primary sources, gives nuts and bolts advice, and offers an account of why the practice is an effective way of addressing human suffering.
Reading: S. N. Goenka, The Discourse Summaries
Justification: Goenka’s Discourse Summaries likewise offers a detailed, practical course meant to introduce students to vipassanā as an effective remedy for human suffering. His treatment is especially valuable insofar as it dovetails with phenomenological concerns.
Reading: Gereon Kopf, Beyond Personal Identity
Justification: Kopf’s book is a philosophical, rather than practical, examination of Buddhist accounts of the mind, human suffering, and meditation. It directly addresses contemporary Western phenomenology as developed by Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and compares and contrasts these approaches with Buddhist thought.
Reading: Chandra Varma, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Theravada Perspective
Justification: Varma situates the oldest strata of Buddhism (Theravada) in relation to contemporary phenomenology. The focus on primary texts attributable to the Buddha himself is especially helpful.
Reading: William Waldron, The “Buddhist Unconscious”
Justification: Waldron’s The “Buddhist Unconscious” works through the thorny problem of the “unconscious” in Buddhist thought. In doing so, he addresses the way in which phenomenological descriptions intersect with psychoanalytic discourse as potentially curative expositions of the previously “unconscious.”
This research will generate the basic material necessary for the publication of at least one scholarly article. Furthermore, this research will also benefit my teaching. As my understanding of this particular question deepens, my understanding of the general philosophical and theological issues involved will also be broadened. In general, an enthusiastic engagement in scholarly research naturally translates into an enthusiastic engagement in the classroom.
Bhikku Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2005).
S. N. Goenka, The Discourse Summaries (Onalaska: Pariyatti Publishing, 2000).
Gereon Kopf, Beyond Personal Identity: Dogen, Nishida, and a Phenomenology of No-Self (London: Curzon Press, 2001).
Bhikku Nanamoli, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 1995).
Larry Rosenberg, Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation (Boston: Shambhala, 2004).
Chandra Varma, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Theravada Perspective (Delhi: Eastern Book Linkers, 1993).
William Waldron, The “Buddhist Unconscious”: The Alaya-Vijnana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought (London: RouteledgeCurzon, 2003).